When I was a girl, I played with Barbies and had many different types of Barbie dolls. I had it all: the Malibu house, the car, and the clothes. With the Barbie movie out now and the doll’s popularity again soaring, it got me to thinking about the connection between this iconic doll and body image.
Barbie made her debut on March 9, 1959, with a blonde and a brunette version. Ruth Handler, one of the co-founders of the toy company Mattel, wanted to create a more adult doll for her daughter Barbara to play with instead of just baby dolls to feed, burp, and change. Her son played with adult male dolls that allowed him to imagine himself as a firefighter, a cowboy, or an astronaut. The inspiration for the Barbie doll came on Ruth’s family trip to Lucerne in the Swiss Alps. She and Barbara saw a doll in a store window, and it stopped them both in their tracks. It was a German adult gag-gift doll named Bild Lilli. The Barbie doll was born.
For more than 50 years, Barbie has been the toy of choice for American girls. In fact, 99% of 3 to 10-year-old girls in the U.S. have owned a Barbie. Study after study has shown that young girls who play with dolls that are thin and have unrealistic body proportions (Barbie) experience higher body size discrepancies than those girls who play with a full-figured doll (Tracy). Recently, I facilitated The Body Project and asked a group of 15 to 19-year-old girls what their idea of a perfect woman was. The girls’ response? “Barbie. She’s tan, tall, thin, blonde with long hair, has big boobs, a butt, and big lips.”
If Barbie was real, she’d be in big trouble. Here’s what I found when comparing Barbie’s measurements to that of a human. Barbie’s neck is so long and skinny, she couldn’t lift her head. Her 16-inch waist (smaller than her head) would mean she’d have room in her body for only half of her liver and just a few inches of intestines. Her legs are twice as long as her arms and her wrists are 3.5 inches, which means there’s no way she could lift anything. And then there are her feet. Her ankles are only 6 inches in diameter, which means her feet are so small, she would wear a child’s size three shoe. With such a top-heavy body, if Barbie were indeed human, the poor thing would have to walk on all fours with her head hung down.
Listen, my intention in writing this article is not to knock Barbie. It’s simply to make us aware of how seemingly mundane objects can have a huge impact on how we feel and view ourselves. Young girls pick up messages from family, friends, toys, and the media about what body types our culture finds acceptable and valuable. A negative or unhealthy body image can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem, and in serious cases, the loss of physical and mental health.
So, what can we do?
There are things you can do now to support a positive body image for your child.
- Wait as long as possible to expose your child to electronics and social media. Kids as young as toddlers know how to work a smartphone or computer. I get it. It’s the world we live in, but try to allow your child to be a kid for as long as possible. Encourage them to read a book—a real one. Wait to get them a phone or their own email address until they’re older. Once they have access, limit the types of sites they can visit.
- From a very early age, talk to them about beautiful and healthy bodies. Research has shown that positive body image begins before the age of five, and that can be your first line of defense in adolescence. Teach them that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors—and that’s all good. Celebrate diversity.
- Don’t talk about dieting or foods that are “good” or “bad,” but rather stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle including good nutrition.
- Create a safe space for your child to talk about how they feel about their bodies. Let them know they never need to compare themselves to the pictures they see in magazines or on social media. Remind them of all the wonderful things that make them beautiful and unique.
- Don’t hesitate to seek professional help as soon as you recognize your child’s negative body image. The sooner they can reverse their negative self-talk or unhealthy self-image, the sooner they can be on the road to recovery.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common technique professionals use to help identify a person’s obsession with their flaws. It can help them understand what images of themselves are real. CBT can show them that negative thoughts are powerful and can dictate their emotions and behavior. By changing their thinking, they can start to change the way they see themselves and the world around them.
Developed by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Oregon Research Institute, The Body Project is a group-based intervention that allows women and girls to challenge their unrealistic ideas of what type of body is beautiful. It can help them establish a healthy body image through oral, written, and behavioral exercises. The idea behind The Body Project is that the more girls and young women support healthy body image and argue against society’s idea of what is acceptable, the more that message of positive body image will grow and consequently decrease the risk of eating disorders and the associated unhealthy behaviors.
If you notice that your child has developed a negative view of their body or has become anxious, depressed, or self-conscious about their appearance, please reach out to us. The sooner the better. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.